by Dan Johnson
Each week I scour Downtown Los Angeles and adjacent neighborhoods for fine food served cheap. Mine is an outward journey, a centrifugal journey like the rays of the sun shooting forth from that great burning orb to reveal the planetary satellites with a celestial illumination robust enough to break the eternal morass of darkness.
Where then is that fiery star from which all expeditions set off? What is the hub in the grand wheel of Downtown? Along what central core do the fickle intestinal lives of Downtowners orbit?
For me, the answer is simple. The heart of this experiment in urban living, stretched as it is between a grim and proud past and a hopeful if naïve future, beats with resplendent glory in Pershing Square—America’s most notoriously fucked up urban space.
Perhaps you know it as the slab of concrete and broken dreams where Dennis Hopper managed his campaign of terror in Speed. Maybe your fondest Pershing recollection is playing the last installment of Grand Theft Auto where an eerie reproduction of the park serves as a venue for a side mission where the main character fights off evil aliens in a amphetamine fueled shooting rampage. Still others will recollect the good old days when our “Central Park” was a licentious hotspot for illicit gay sex.
Carey McWilliams, superlative Southern California commentator, likened the former Plaza Abaja to the caldera of a volcano and a “ringside seat at the circus.” That might have been an accurate description for the tree lined bandstand of his heyday, but the comparison that rings most true to me today in 2016 is that of a disintegrating turd sitting beneath a heat lamp in an inauspicious corner of a 7/11.
That barren crag is a spiritual wasteland bearing silent, miserable witness to the worst of our civic traditions. Pershing Square is a testament to the outright scorn for nature with which our forbearers buried every living thing beneath a sarcophagus of concrete.
We here in the waterless West are slowly coming to grips with this lesson: the natural world was not meant to be subject to the childish whims of humanity. When you suppress or exploit something, the greater balance of the universe finds a way to tag you back.
So while city planners intended a vast sanctuary of albedo on which the new masses of the Golden State’s finest city would congregate to appreciate public space, it was entirely within the Great Mystery’s jurisdiction to fuck the square up with a bumper crop of crazy people doing crazy things.
As we prepare to transform Pershing Square into something transcendent and functional and likely doomed by the karmic weight of the park’s enduring shittiness, I take a special voyage to the core of the beast to enjoy a meal.
Dining in Pershing Square is a goldilocks type activity. Pitchoun? Too rich. Subway? Too poor. Arda’s Greek Café? Mmmm just right.
By “just right” I mean suitably unredeemable. Arda’s is a sort of enduring void where mediocre food and misleading prices merge with sirens and other street noises in a symphony of uselessness.
Upon walking in from 6th St, I was first struck by two large works of artwork. One features flowers, the other a loose outline of the Biltmore, the Gas Company Tower and the US Bank Building as seen in silhouette from street level Pershing Square. Thick strokes of paint spell out this dubious mantra: “A New City A New Pleasure. A New City A New Treasure.”
Implicit in that work of artistic insight is that Arda’s might be that new pleasure, that new treasure. Frankly, why not? At first blush the picture menu advertising Panini sandwiches and breakfast options and Greek traditional cuisine that look to be of fantastic value!
$6.99 for a falafel pita plate that comes with fries (substitute rice) and a drink? That is well within my price point. When I order, the woman behind the counter forces a half smile that looks more like the sort of grimace one mistakes for a sign of fleeting comfort in a person enduring hospice care. Then she charges me $9.80.
As it turns out, an advertised price of $6.99 is Alda’s code for “tack two bucks on for location, schmuck.” Ordinarily, I’d be of a mind to tell that woman a thing or two, but I have this passive aggressive instrument called a cheap food column in which I get to vent my spleen by comparing drab employees to dying shells of human beings.
So I sit and wait in an ample reserve of booth seating playing host to Angelenos of varied ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds including one of those creepy people who maintains a low volume conversation on his apple earbud headphones while scanning the room making eye contact with everyone and rolling the cord microphone between his slovenly lips ever so slowly.
“Fresh Food Takes Time,” reads the inscription in the glazed glass by the kitchen. Arda’s has me there. Fresh food does take time. Unfortunately, the falafel pita plate could only be mistaken for fresh food in a dire survival situation.
Pro tip from a falafel connoisseur: if your mixture of onions, deep fried chickpeas and tahini sauce tastes like peanut butter, you’ve done it wrong. Call Gordon Ramsey. Shutter your doors and trade your chef team to PF Chang’s for a few Cordon Bleu draft picks and a sous chef to be named later. It’s over for you. You’re finished.
The Mediterranean Skippy log is sliced in half and arranged around a pile of rice that couldn’t taste more like nothing if you carved your taste buds off with a cheese grater. The whole debacle is an affront to the Greek people and an insult of cuisine.
Arda’s reminds me of the yearly children’s Easter Egg hunt in Pershing Square. Families congregate for a supposedly joyous affair rife with wholesome fun for young ones that is actually an ill advised exercise in letting our city’s children rummage barehanded through dirty patches and mulch beds that have seen ever so many awful instances of human waste. You expect one thing and you get another. You have been gypped and it’s your own damn fault.
I award Arda’s a “0” on the binary and a highly sought after accreditation as “A guaranteed disappointment of a magnitude that rivals only the annual farce of an ice rink in the park across the street.”